There it is, the huge blank space — to my eyes, anyway — next to my name in the results of the Philadelphia Marathon 2017. I did not finish, DNF in runners parlance. In 15 years of competing, this had never happened to me.
I’ve spent the past two weeks talking to running friends, running experts, and running psychologists. I’m still trying to understand what happened.
Just three weeks earlier, at a 5-kilometer race, a fellow competitor told me at the finish line: “You’re an animal.” I’ve been called an animal numerous times over the years. What I lack in running talent, I make up with doggedness. I had started — and finished — 13 marathons. I didn’t expect the Philadelphia Marathon to be any different.
The day, Nov. 19, started ominously with pouring rain and high winds. Within a minute of stepping outside, my shoes and socks were wet. It wasn’t even 5:30 a.m., with an hour and a half to go before the start.
Conditions improved as the rain stopped. Based on my time at the 2016 Philadelphia Marathon (2h59m50s), I was seeded. It’s a pompous way to say that I started in the same corral as the elite at the front of the race. Here I was, the 43-year-old amateur, mingling with the world-class athletes who would win in a couple of hours: I felt both special and like a fraud.
A Simple Plan
My plan for the race was simple, a redux of last year’s strategy: I wanted to run the marathon under 3 hours, which means keeping an average of 6m52s a mile or better. (That’s 8.7 miles per hour, or 14.1 kilometers per hour). I would push hard in the first half, knowing that I would slow down in the second half. And I would adjust the strategy accordingly if I couldn’t hold the pace.
My time at an October half-marathon lulled me into hoping that my fitness was back to similar levels as 2016 and that I had fully recovered from a bout of pneumonia in March. But my training had been shorter than last year’s, and I hadn’t been able to compete in as many races as I should have to run under 3 hours. Races are crucial for mental preparedness.
At the start of any marathon, I’m propelled by a rush of adrenaline. Within a few minutes come the first bouts of self-doubts. The two feelings — “You can do this’’ versus “You’ll never make it’’ — battle in me until the end.
The mental games were no different this time, except that, as miles went by, self-doubt soaked deeper in me. Every step felt like a struggle to keep on pace, even though, in reality, I was still on pace. I ran the first 10 kilometers in 41:46, only 40 seconds slower than last year. From the outside, the race was going according to plan.
Inside, panic was setting in. I felt physically off, without being able to pinpoint a particular source of pain or injury.
Miles 8 to 11 are the hilliest of the course, and I knew I would fight strong, cold headwinds — just like last year. My mind was set on losing as little time as possible before the big downhill at mile 12, where I’d be able to accelerate again. That’s when I found myself surrounded by a crowd: The 3-hour pace group had caught up with me. I don’t remember making a big deal about it, partly because I got distracted, for a moment, by a young man running in a blue suit. Yes, a suit, running at about 6:40 a mile.
According to my watch, I ran the first half in 1h28m40s (The Philadelphia Marathon website says 1h29m40s, not that it matters now.). On paper, I was still on pace for a pretty good finish, if not under 3 hours, at least not much above: It might even be good enough to place in the top three Masters (runners 40 and older), depending on the competition.
In reality, I was feeling more and more out of it. The reasonable thing would have been to dial down the pace and regroup. It didn’t occur to me. I was giving all I had, pushing and pushing harder. I was under the impression it wasn’t enough.
The sun was up now and we were protected from the wind on this flat portion along the river. In any of my past marathons, this would be the moment when I mentally went through the second part of the course, bracing for the challenges and embracing them (“You can do it.”). Instead, the “You’ll never make it’’ was sinking in deeper.
My mind was focused on mile 14, where big crowds gathered around the Philadelphia Museum of Art would be cheering us. Rather than getting a boost from the supporters, I lost concentration and looked for my husband — even though I knew he would probably not be there. It was a clear sign that I wasn’t myself: In the 10 years he’s been supporting me at races, I’d never needed to look for him — because he would always find me first.
`Are You Crazy?’
Shortly after passing the famed ‘Rocky’ statue, I stopped, bending over my knees. I couldn’t move anymore. I vaguely remember people shouting “You can do this!’’ The loudest cry was coming from within: “Are you crazy, why did you stop? Start running again.’’
As I tried to explain what I felt at that moment to friends and family, I described it as a mental meltdown or a running burnout. Not moving made me feel purposeless and lost, as vulnerable as a little girl lost in a busy supermarket. I looked up and saw the 3-hour group passing by.
I was furious and confused, in disbelief. “Is it really happening? Did I just drop?’’ I cried a little, in nervous sobs. Physically, I was cold and spent. Mentally, I was crushed and numb. I walked away from the course to an alternative reality. “Do you need a medic?’’ a policeman asked me. “No, I don’t. I just need my clothes,’’ I said, motioning toward the truck that had my bag.
Dylan Cohen, a friend from New Jersey who ran his best marathon in 2h37 in his 20s, said dropping out was a good decision.
“This was your body protecting itself,’’ Cohen said. “You may not have been injured or encountering any issue at the moment, but your subconscious might have detected something was not right. I think you will find that this will be easy to get past.’’
In a 1977 research paper considered a landmark study in running psychology, William Morgan and Michael Pollock concluded that one mental aspect of world-class runners versus the rest of us is that they monitor their body and track their “effort sense’’ during competition.
The researchers called that strategy “associative,’’ meaning the athletes constantly read their body. By contrast, the middle-of-the-pack runners use a “dissociative’’ strategy: They try to distract themselves from the pain and think of something else.
Though I’m not an elite runner, it seems like I am mentally behaving like one in competitions. I continuously check the levels of pain and effort, recalculating along the way. While I was still technically on pace to finish in or around 3 hours, my mind did the math and couldn’t reconcile the goal with the physical reality, said Glenn Geher, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
“You probably treated the marathon the way a lot of professional runners do,” said Geher, who is working on a study about runners and is himself a marathoner.
In other words: I cut my losses.
“I have seen many athletes shut down when it seems like their goal is no longer in reach,” said Ashley Samson, an associate professor at the department of kinesiology at California State University in Northridge. “This can be attributed to our primitive psychological wiring, in which we are programmed to avoid psychological pain at all costs.”
When you stop, you allow yourself to think you are in control, said Samson, who’s also a sports-psychology consultant. It’s less painful to think “I didn’t get my time because I stopped” rather than admit to yourself that you couldn’t do it that day, Samson said.
A Way Out
It’s only much later in the day that I realized the nature of the course played a part in my meltdown. The race consists of a loop and an out-and-back that start and finish near the museum. After the first loop, runners are within a few yards of the finish line, although there’s still 12.2 miles left before they can actually cross it.
I didn’t think about it in 2016. But this year it appears that — unbeknownst to me — the proximity of the finish line gave me a safe way out, a license to drop out.
“That must be devastating,’’ said Alex Morales from London, a colleague and serial marathoner.
“Sometimes the mind plays funny tricks with you,’’ he said. “You should go into your next race knowing you can go the course.’’
To John Kelly, a running partner from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, the lesson is clear: I need to compete more often in shorter races, and break personal records, or PRs, to build up confidence.
“Marathon training is such a long process to not have a good race at the end,’’ said Kelly, whose record in a marathon is 2h25. “Your marathon will benefit with a season of shorter races (mile, 3000, 5k, 8k) PRs.’’
Back home after the race, I was angry at myself and hungry for a revenge. I had an urge to cross a finish line.
Taking Kelly’s advice, I have registered to three races ranging from 5 kilometers to 10 miles in the next month. There’s more to come, including a marathon in spring.
I’m learning to accept that it was just a bad day at the race.
At mile 14, on my 14th marathon, the supposed “animal’’ turned into a fragile quitter shivering in the bitter November cold.
Or as my husband put it, once I had found his warming embrace, “You’re human.’’